Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch
In 1961, I was in New Haven when Elaine Stritch introduced Noel Coward's hilarious "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" in Sail Away. In this number -- which talks of crass American tourists "churning up the gravel as they gaze at St. Peter's dome" -- the peerless Stritch churned up her own gravel voice to derive every laugh that Coward had built into the laffer. That rendition was a master class in the art of putting across a comedy song.

Now 47 years later, Stritchie -- as dear Noel addressed her -- is reprising "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" in Elaine Stritch At Liberty...At The Carlyle, a reprise of her Tony Award-winning, two-act solo show. And if anything, the masterful entertainer's "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" is even more world-weary, more mocking, more seasoned than ever before. If she isn't improving on perfection, she's indisputably presenting it as freshly as imaginable.

Stritch's appearance on her home ground -- she lives upstairs in the hotel -- is thoroughly astonishing. There she is with her thin legs and curly blonde cropped hair, once again looking like a glass of Champagne in which all the bubbles have risen to the top. There she is in the white blouse and black tights she considers the height of comfort, with her only prop being a stool like the one she carted around the Public Theater and Neil Simon stages (and carts less here thanks to space limitations.) Rest assured, however, that the space limitation is otherwise no limitation whatsoever. Those bothered by all the furniture moving in the earlier incarnations might prefer things this way. Those who haven't previously seen the clever retrospective might even speculate that setting it in a larger venue would dissipate the intimacy provided in a room to which Stritch has so nicely accustomed herself.

Indeed, it could be said that beneath the bright performing tinsel, At Liberty -- written by Stritch with John Lahr (the billing is "constructed by John Lahr reconstructed by Elaine Stritch") -- is a plea for intimacy. The now 82-years-old Stritch recounts a need to strut her talents from childhood when she started noticing herself in a mirror. Beginning there, she hops, skips, and jumps -- often literally -- from her early study with legendary drama coach Erwin Piscator to dating Marlon Brando and Ben Gazzara to those reputation-building appearances in such shows as Pal Joey, Goldilocks, Company, and the 1996 revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (for which she should have won a Tony).

That's the public Stritch; but she and collaborator Lahr, while careful to keep the ad-lib-like yuks showing, don't back away from the private Stritch -- who for years held herself to two drinks at performance time but at other times didn't keep the cap on the bottle. The reason behind the indiscriminate imbibing emerges when Stritch mentions a visit Richard Burton made to her Sail Away dressing-room. She notes that the door was always open. "It's lonely back there," she allows. Suddenly, it's clear: Performing assures her the attention she craves. She as much as says so with her beg-off number, Richard Rodgers' "Something Good," in which she thanks the audience for "loving me, whether or not you should."

The audience loves her mostly, of course, because she's a Broadway chanteuse on a par with the very few best of them, including Ethel Merman (whom she understudied in Call Me Madam before taking the Irving Berlin tuner on the road), Mary Martin, and Barbara Cook. There is even the temptation to say she's the best of the lot. In part, it's because she approaches songs -- including her signature number, Stephen Sondheim's The Ladies Who Lunch -- with the care she'd bring to a Chekhov script. Not that she makes a blatant show of it while offering definitive version after definitive version of the songs she's distinguished over the years. At those heady moments, she's merely -- and absolutely -- genius on great gams.